All the Ships at Sea - Production Notes

All the Ships at Sea, written and directed by Dan Sallitt, is the story of two adult sisters who are reunited under unusual circumstance after many years.  Virginia, the younger sister, is in a state of depression after being ejected from a religious cult.  Her oppressive parents place her in the care of older sister Evelyn, a Catholic and a professor of theology.  Though they once bonded together against their parents, the sisters are now in danger of being separated by their differing ideologies and the defenses they have erected against their unhappy childhood.

Edith Meeks, best known for her role as the mother in Todd Haynes’ Poison, plays the role of Virginia, whose unusual beliefs threaten to alienate the older sister she loves.  Los Angeles stage actress Strawn Bovee plays the older sister Evelyn, whose attempt to help Virginia exacerbates her own crisis of faith and dredges up unwelcome childhood emotions.

Sallitt conceived All the Ships at Sea with Bovee and Meeks in mind.  “I’d worked with both Strawn and Edith before, and it occurred to me that they would be plausible as sisters,” he said.  “They both have a reserved, New England-like quality—even though Strawn is, as far as I know, a born-and-bred California girl.”  And there were other practical reasons to cast familiar actors, says Sallitt.  “The hardest thing about low-budget filmmaking, the problem that I can never figure out how to overcome, is casting appropriate actors during a short preproduction period.  Finding actors you like and working with them again and again is a way of eliminating that problem.”  Dylan McCormick, who plays the important role of Joseph, Evelyn’s priest and confidant, is another Sallitt alumnus, having played opposite Meeks in Sallitt’s last film Honeymoon.

All the Ships at Sea contrasts two very different kinds of religious belief, Evelyn’s commitment to the institution of Catholicism and Virginia’s total devotion to a Heaven’s Gate-like cult.  “In a way, the film is an imaginative remake of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience,” says Sallitt.  “There are people whose religious life is merely an extension of their intellectual and philosophical life, and there are people who tap into a core of religious rapture and ecstasy that transforms the world for them.”  But Sallitt does not think of All the Ships at Sea as primarily a movie about religion, despite its passages of theological debate between the sisters.  “To me, the heart of the movie is the sisters’ childhood and the way that it overshadows their adulthood and determines their actions and reactions,” he says.  “The differences in their religious beliefs are meant to reflect styles of personality, ways of viewing the world.  But I’m not that interested in the merits of the particular belief systems, except that I wanted to give both sisters the best arguments that I could.”

All the Ships at Sea asks its audience to identify with both sisters, at different times and in different ways.  “The film starts out with Evelyn as the identification figure, the one who gets to tell the story, and with Virginia as a total figure of mystery,” says Sallitt.  “But somewhere along the line we realize that Evelyn is more complex and less accessible than we’d realized, and that Virginia’s emotions are perhaps easier for us to understand and relate to.”  This shifting plan of identification was inspired by the different screen personalities of the movie’s two actresses, says Sallitt.  “Strawn is a magnet for identification—when she looks at something, her eyes are like arrows pointing you in that direction.  And her face is amazingly expressive.  Whereas Edith is inward, complicated, intricate, impossible to grasp all at once.  Strawn comes to you, but you have to come to Edith.”

Sallitt, a film critic who has written for the Los Angeles Reader, Slate, and many other outlets, financed All the Ships at Sea himself—“with the tax returns from my last movie.”  The film’s $30,000 budget was made possible only by the use of digital video.  “I’m not especially interested in exploring the nature of the video medium,” he says.  “I wanted the images in this movie to have as much tonal range as we could give them.”  Director of Photography Duraid Munajim, who worked as a camera assistant on Sallitt’s Honeymoon, had acquired a good deal of experience with digital video in the years between the two projects.  “I asked Duraid if we could get away with using fewer lights with digital video, as I’d heard,” said Sallitt.  “He told me that, if I wanted digital video to look good, more lights and more lighting time would be required instead of less, to prevent details from vanishing into the blacks and whites.”  Munajim’s perfectionism paid off in a lovely, muted color scheme with soft, reflected light, reminiscent of the work of the late Nestor Almendros.

Like Sallitt’s previous Honeymoon, All the Ships at Sea was primarily filmed in Northeastern Pennsylvania, with Sallitt’s parents’ Sylvan Lake cottage serving as the main location.  (“I have a covenant with my parents that I will never shoot at their home again,” says Sallitt.)  The movie was completed in twelve shooting days, and edited on Sallitt’s home computer.  “I still wish that digital video looked as rich as film, but in every other way it’s an incredible gift to the low-budget filmmaker,” he says.  “My last film was shot on 16mm, and post-production was a nightmare: going back and forth between analog and digital, coping with different technologies, trying to keep in sync, depending on other people’s schedules.  With DV, the finished film exits your computer via a Firewire port or a DVD burner.  It’s the way filmmaking should be.”